A Cape Cod state senator has filed legislation seeking to alter the weighted vote structure on the five-member Steamship Authority board that gives Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket control over the boat line that is their lifeline.

The bill was quickly condemned this week by the Cape and Islands state legislative delegation.

Filed by Sen. Susan Moran as senate bill No. 2361 as “an act relative to municipal equity on Steamship Authority operations,” the bill bubbled up at a marathon, three-hour SSA board meeting Tuesday morning amid broader discussion about long-term planning initiatives, indicating a renewed tug of war between the mainland and Island port communities as demand for travel to the two Islands continues to grow.

At the meeting Tuesday SSA special counsel Steven Sayers explained the bill. “Senator Moran has proposed legislation that would provide on this board the mainland communities an effective veto over any actions taken by the authority . . . the Islands would no longer have majority control of the vote,” he said.

When the 1960 SSA enabling legislation was last amended in 2002, expanding the board of governors from three to five voting members, it was intentionally structured to give the Vineyard and Nantucket each a 35 per cent weighted vote. The three other port towns — Barnstable, Falmouth and New Bedford — each have a 10 per cent vote.

The core mission of the SSA is to provide dependable year-round ferry service to the two Islands. The ferry line operates with no state or federal subsidy and depends on summer fares to stay financially afloat in the winter months.

A Falmouth resident and former Falmouth selectman, Senator Moran’s district includes the towns of Kingston, Pembroke, Plymouth, Bourne, Falmouth and Sandwich. The bill was filed in the senate and referred to the Joint Committee on Transportation on March 29. The language change would require a mainland town to join the Vineyard and Nantucket to form a voting majority.

Speaking to the Gazette Wednesday, Senator Moran defended the bill and said it grew out of long-term planning initiatives around regional transportation on the mainland, including plans to replace the Bourne and Sagamore bridges. She said the bridge replacements would require mainland towns, including Falmouth, to examine transportation broadly.

“We’re more aware now than ever that one side having all the power just is not sustainable. And this legislation is really looks at having no town feel disenfranchised,” the state senator said.

She cited the heavy traffic that comes through Falmouth from automobiles and trucks bound for the Vineyard.

“We’re essentially bursting at the seams here,” Ms. Moran said. “Constituents have felt placated by the [SSA] board . . . and there’s really no opportunity for real, give-and-take conversation. Right now the Islands already have veto power over the mainland communities. It’s just that the status quo is not working for the towns with the smaller voting power. And so, rather than alienate those constituents, my bill creates the mechanism to ensure compromise so that there can be real conversation.”

In a statement Wednesday, state Sen Julian Cyr and Rep. Dylan Fernandes vowed swift action to quash the bill.

“This bill would allow one Steamship Authority member to control the fate of the lifeline to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, while placing Island communities in the precarious position to be responsible for future operating deficits,”  the joint statement said.

“Islanders should chart the course when it comes to their lifeline to the mainland. We are open to a thoughtful and collaborative conversation about the Steamship Authority, but after hearing from our constituents, we have deeply held concerns about this approach and cannot support it. Fortunately, there is a long tradition of deferring to the lawmakers who represent the Islands on such matters. Legislation affecting Islanders cannot advance without our support, and thus this bill will not pass.”
Broader discussion at Tuesday’s boat line meeting included a rehash of various subcommittee meetings from port towns and renewed discussion about establishing a port in New Bedford for freight and expanded passenger service to the Vineyard.

Falmouth residents have consistently sounded off on early morning freight ferries to the Vineyard, and railed against the SSA’s plans for an expanded shoreside ticket office complex at the Woods Hole terminal.

But Barnstable governor Robert Jones said altering the board’s voting structure was the wrong way to address Falmouth’s concerns, and would lead to further division between the port communities.

“Legislation like that only serves to tear us apart,” Mr. Jones said. “I’m frustrated with this . . . to change the vote, that’s just not going to serve any good purpose, except perhaps to alienate neighbors.”

He added that pleasing Woods Hole residents has proven a challenge, and that New Bedford presented a “huge question.”

Falmouth governor Kathryn Wilson said it was important to discuss the transportation issues facing Woods Hole, especially as demand for Vineyard service continues to accelerate, and the two bridges to Cape Cod both face needed, long-haul repairs. She pressed the question of exploring New Bedford as an alternate port.

“I think the time is right to try and get out in front of this,” Ms. Wilson said. “Our regional transportation snarl is right smack on the horizon. And then, if I was on the Vineyard, I’d want some redundancy, I’d want some backup.”

Ms. Wilson said she did not know enough about Senator Moran’s amendment to give an opinion.

New Bedford governor Moira Tierney said that while the Whaling City is interested in principle in an SSA port — and that she believed it would become necessary at some point in the future — significant infrastructure and economic obstacles remain.

Vineyard governor James Malkin and Nantucket governor Rob Ranney pushed back on all fronts.

Mr. Ranney said diverting SSA ferries to New Bedford would have a litany of consequences for the Vineyard, including longer trips and more expensive fares. And Mr. Malkin said the effort to alleviate traffic concerns in Woods Hole should be driven by the board or an independent third party, rather than a Falmouth-based task force.

“It seems to me that most of this activity is being driven by the concerns of our friends in Woods Hole, dealing with traffic,” Mr. Malkin said. “If you form a group to deal with that squeaky wheel . . . you’re forming a group to deal with concerns you’ve already prejudiced.”

But Ms. Wilson, who has fought without success to eliminate the 5:30 a.m. freight ferry from Woods Hole to the Vineyard, said the current situation is untenable.

“I think the status quo is not the way to continue on,” she said. “It is not satisfactory.”

Updated to include statement from Senator Cyr and Representative Fernandes, and comments from Senator Moran.